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How to Get Credit for Offbeat Courses

One of the most exciting things about studying abroad is taking classes that you’re unlikely to find in the course catalog back home: a Latin dance class where the homework is done on the dance floor of a local nightclub or a mountaineering class in the Andes. Many foreign universities offer such courses for credit, so it’s well worth the effort to find a way to take the credits home with you.

Find out how your school handles transfer credits before you leave the country. Credit for some courses, such as a literature class with a lengthy reading list and several papers to write, should transfer without any argument. But if you plan to take courses that have no equivalent at home, particularly those that take place outside of a traditional classroom, transferring credits can be a little more complicated.

One idea is to sign up for a course that will teach you about something the locals take for granted, from native dance to beginning language to the basic history of your host home. Such courses generally cater to foreign students, and they are a good bet for transfer credits because they often require a reasonable amount of background reading and writing, academic activities that U.S. institutions tend to approve of. This might mean that you have to write a paper on the origins of the cha-cha-cha or the linguistic ancestors of the Quechua dialect.

Even if your school doesn’t offer an identical course, you can usually appeal to the departmental counterpart (Dance or Performing Arts, the appropriate language department, History, etc.) for credit. Make sure to save your syllabus and copies of everything you write or turn in for class; if possible, bring home some of your reading materials as well. So if there is any question about getting credit upon your return home, you will have everything you need to make your case.

The best part of taking a course that teaches you about your host-home’s culture is that the skills you learn travel well outside the classroom. When I was studying in Quito, Ecuador, I took a fabulous course in Latin dance at La Universidad San Francisco De Quito. At first my friends and I were shy about testing out our moves because the locals had been dancing since they could walk. But after a week or two of instruction we understood the music and the steps and accepted an offer to go dancing at a club with some local college students. Knowing the basics made us more comfortable and gave us a chance to hang out with college-age Quiteños on their own turf.

If you’re studying in an exotic location, taking a course in anything from ecology to anthropology could offer you a unique opportunity to both interact with the locals and travel. Quito is nestled high in the Andes, and taking a course in “Andinismo” was the ideal way for me to see (and climb) the sights. There’s nothing like sleeping in a tent in the wilderness to bond you with your classmates, and you might even learn some unconventional but useful vocabulary—not just the words for “rope” and “ice ax” but also slang and local vernacular. You’ll be talking like a native in no time.

Other courses that can teach you about life outside the classroom include hands-on craft classes where you can learn how to weave, sculpt, paint, or even cook in the local style; art history classes that may take you to museums, galleries, and performances; or biology and natural science classes that require field work and observation. Some courses include the cost of transportation, site admission, overnight stays, and gear rental. But even if you have to pay for them out of pocket, chances are that traveling and exploring with a group from your host university still will be cheaper than making arrangements on your own or through a tour agency. In addition to group and student discounts, you’ll find that traveling with a mixed group of foreigners and locals means that you’re less likely to get ripped off by bus and cab drivers and other ticketers. You may also find that traveling with locals offers not just a different cultural perspective but even access to some places that are difficult for a tourist to gain entry to alone.

Getting credit for uncommon classes like the ones above may require some creativity. As with any course, try first to get credit within the most logical department. But if at first you don’t succeed, try recasting your pitch. For example, if neither the dance department nor the department of performing arts will approve the credits you earned for a native Latin dance class, ask the theater department; call it a course in the history of dance. Or try to sell it to the Hispanic studies department as a class in Hispanic culture. Persistence pays off, but it’s a good idea to think of a convincing argument for credit before you commit to a class abroad.

One final thing to remember when you’re debating whether to take a class that will lead you off the beaten track is this: While you can find a way to transfer credit for almost anything, actual number or letter grades may not make it onto your home school’s transcript. Many schools will give you “unassigned credits” that count toward graduation but bear no weight in your GPA. This gives you the freedom to prioritize differently than you might at home, where all grades go straight onto your transcript. Maybe you’ll decide to practice your dancing in a club one night instead of staying up late polishing your paper on the cha-cha-cha.

Before you blow off school work, make sure you know your home institution’s policy on transferring grades. But no matter what their rules are, remember that studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you should take advantage of the unusual opportunities that present themselves to you, whether they be inside the classroom or in the local markets, jungles, art galleries, or night clubs. In the end, the experiences will enrich your life whether you get credit for them or not.

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